The U.S. Senate has passed a bill authored by Sen. Mazie Hirono to make it possible for more than 260,000 Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, including 300 from Hawaii, to receive the highest civilian award that Congress can bestow -- the Congressional Gold Medal.
U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, author of a companion measure in the U.S. House, said she hopes to gather enough support to send the legislation to President Barack Obama before the end of the year.
Following the Senate's action, Gabbard said House rules require the measure to have 290 co-sponsors before it can be considered. So far, Gabbard has been able to persuade 180 House members to support the bill.
"More than 200,000 Filipino and Filipino-American soldiers responded to President Roosevelt's call to duty and fought under our American flag during World War II," Gabbard said. "With just 18,000 Filipino WWII veterans alive today, time is truly of the essence to honor these courageous men with the long overdue recognition they deserve. We've made tremendous progress over the past year to gather bipartisan support from lawmakers for this legislation."
Before his death, U.S. Rep. Mark Takai, in a statement released by the Congressional Asian Pacific Caucus, said: "While this recognition is a step in the right direction, Congress can do more. As the number of World War II veterans continues to diminish, we can continue to build on recent improvements to the visa process and make it easier for the families of these selfless Filipino veterans to be reunited with their loved ones in the United States."
Retired Army Col. Ben Acohido, who is part of a national effort to complete a census determining the exact number of surviving Filipino veterans, estimates that little more than a dozen are still living in Hawaii.
Congress has already recognized the wartime contributions of other minority military units with eligibility for the medal beginning with the Tuskegee Airmen in 2006; Navajo Code Talkers in 2008; Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, in 2009; the Japanese-American soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion and 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and the Military Intelligence Service in 2010; the Montford Point Marines, who were the first African-Americans to serve in the Marine Corps, in 2011; and in 2014, the 65th Infantry Regiment, known as the Borinqueneers -- the only Hispanic, segregated military unit in the Korean War whose soldiers were predominantly from Puerto Rico.
"These veterans were instrumental to an Allied victory in the Pacific theater, but their fight didn't end with the war," Hirono said in a statement. "For decades, they have continued to fight for the benefits they have earned and to be reunited with their families in the United States."
Her sentiments were echoed by retired Army Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, a 1968 Leilehua High School graduate and chairman of the Filipino Veterans Recognition and Education Project. "Filipino World War II veterans served their country with distinct honor and uncommon valor and we owe them a profound debt of gratitude," he said. "I am proud that with the Senate's unanimous passage of the Filipino World War II Congressional Gold Medal Act, the veterans are significantly closer on their lifelong goal of national recognition of sacrifice and selfless service during World War II from the U.S. Congress. They have waited 75 years for this proud and historic milestone in American history. We deeply appreciate Sen. Hirono's steadfast leadership and dedication to the thousands of Filipino World War II veterans and their families who made this day possible. The veterans will surely be proud."
Taguba's father, Tomas, survived the 65-mile Bataan Death March in 1942, retired as a sergeant first class in 1962, and lived in Hawaii until his death.
Most of the survivors are in their 90s and supporters continue to fight for U.S. fulfillment of promised pensions and health benefits.
"The Congressional Gold Medal will preserve the history of service and sacrifice by these loyal Filipino WWII veterans," Acohido said. "They were the first line of defense in the Pacific, providing valuable time for the American military to marshal its forces when the outcome of the war was still in question. We are now hopeful for the bill's passage in the U.S. House."
Hirono has continued the congressional battle to restore pensions and benefits begun by U.S. Sens. Spark Matsunaga, Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka.
The legislation was supported by a bipartisan coalition of 71 senators, including Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., who said: "Filipino World War II veterans served and sacrificed alongside American forces and played an important role in the Allied victory. I have spent my career fighting to ensure they receive the recognition and benefits they deserve. While we can never fully repay the debt we owe these brave soldiers, Congress can pay tribute to their courage by awarding them with the Congressional Gold Medal. Granting Filipino veterans this honor will be yet another step taken in correcting past wrongs and celebrating their heroic actions and the patriotism of their community." ___